Playback’s TV Producer of the Year: Insight Productions

The go-to format shop broke records with Amazing Race Canada, has top specialty series on Slice and Food and is now looking to laugh at the U.S. with an ambitious cross-platform venture.

Toronto-based Insight Productions was already top shop for reality-show formats, but The Amazing Race Canada brought the prodco more eyeballs than ever before. The program pulled in an average audience of 3.5 million on CTV this summer, outperforming the U.S. version’s current season and making it the most-watched Canadian series on record.

So what does that mean to a company that’s been doing its thing since 1979?

“We had a great relationship with CTV beforehand, but it doesn’t hurt to have the highest-rated show of all time. Our reputation internationally has grown, too,” says Insight founder, chair and CEO John Brunton, sitting in the prodco’s bustling three-storey office in Toronto’s Fashion District. President and COO Barbara Bowlby – Brunton’s sister – adds, “That’s important, so that we can sell our next original format internationally.”

Insight adapts foreign formats – also including Big Brother Canada, Top Chef Canada and Never Ever Do This at Home – and devises its own, such as Battle of the Blades, for which it is negotiating a deal for a Russian version. “We’re obsessed with creating our own formats,” Brunton says.

Blades nearly died prematurely here at home. Despite strong ratings, last season the competition show that turns ex-NHLers into one half of a figure skating pair was on hiatus, an apparent victim of the federal government’s cuts to pubcaster CBC. Perhaps the Ceeb took the show away to get the public’s attention regarding its funding plight. Whatever the case, it pleaded with Insight to not take the series elsewhere.

“[They] assured us, ‘Keep your powder dry and wait. There’s a great chance we will bring it back,’” Brunton recalls. “We respected what the CBC had done for us – it’s part of a 30-year relationship – and trusted they would do everything they could to bring it back, and they have.” The fourth season hit the ice in September, and while each season has seen fewer viewers than the last, it has garnered more than one million viewers, which Brunton has always regarded as network TV’s “home run” standard.

Meanwhile, the inaugural season of Big Brother Canada – which ran from late February to early May – was notable for a couple of reasons. Its online offerings were particularly robust, allowing viewers to track the show’s houseguests 24/7 and interact with them, vote on the show’s developments, and win prizes in a “power play” game. According to Livestream Channel Analytics, one million hours of video were streamed from live feeds within the show’s first seven weeks. The web components were hatched among Insight, Shaw Media and Toronto digital shop Secret Location, with which Insight has forged an ongoing partnership. Their efforts were rewarded with a pair of nominations at the Social TV Awards against heavy-hitting U.S. competitors.

Shaw surprisingly chose to air Big Brother Canada – which is adapted from the Endemol format – on specialty Slice as opposed to Global, with the exception of the premiere episode, which aired on both and, combined, drew a reported 1.4 million. While Brunton won’t reveal the budget, he calls it an “enormously expensive” program that required the construction of a 5,000-square foot working house, 80 cameras, and a couple of months of around-the-clock shooting.

Shaw says the show drew on average of “nearly 1 million” viewers on Slice, making it the year’s top Canadian specialty reality series, and Brunton believes they can achieve that magic number for season two, for which auditions have taken place. But season one made an impact: Shaw reported that the show increased Slice’s average A25-54 audience by 77%, in effect raising the entire channel’s rate card.

Meanwhile, the fourth season of Top Chef Canada, based on the U.S. series from Magical Elves, is in post ahead of a spring launch on Food Network Canada, where it is the number one series. This year also saw the debut of Never Ever Do This at Home on Discovery Channel Canada. Based on a format from Norwegian broadcaster NRK, it’s all about blowing stuff up, and Insight’s iteration is the first in English and has become the version selling internationally to broadcasters including Spike TV in the U.S. A second season is in production and will air in the spring.

Beyond reality TV, Insight has been associated with the music scene since making the 1982 CBC Canuck rock doc Heart of Gold and Brunton has produced the Juno Awards 19 times (12 of which with Insight), taking the event from intimate theaters into large arenas. April’s broadcast nabbed more than 1.9 million viewers, third highest on record for the event on CTV.

Scripted shows have also been part of Insight’s DNA, past successes including Global’s family drama Ready or Not (1993-1997) and international hit teen soap Falcon Beach (2005-2007). But its success with Canadian Idol (2003-2008) on CTV tilted the balance heavily towards reality programming, which is fine with them. “In scripted, the development period to get from a treatment to an improved script can be a couple of years, whereas in format – with our infrastructure and talent and producers – we can get on air in two months,” Bowlby explains. “So, from a business perspective, you’re out the door so much faster.”

However, Insight has kept its hand in scripted and is using the web as a launch pad. In late October, Shaw’s Action channel website unveiled But I’m Chris Jericho!, a comedy starring the titular former wrestler playing a fictionalized version of himself.

And the prodco is investing heavily in America, Eh?, an ambitious concept that satirizes our neighbors to the south, incorporating a TV series, 24/7 online and mobile content and a user-generated component. It will be a comedic blender of sketch and news-desk humour. “There’s a tradition of Canadians making fun of American politics and culture since Wayne and Shuster,” Brunton notes.

In a new approach for Insight, it’s going forward with the show’s web elements – which it intends to have ready early in the New Year – even without a broadcast commitment. Although the TV series could fit on The Comedy Network, Brunton is piqued by nontraditional avenues such as Google TV, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube and Netflix. “There’s a whole new arena of potential partners looking for their first major venture in Canada, and some have looked very closely at America, Eh?,” he says.

Insight attributes its success to its bench strength in producers and other talent. Its full-time staff numbers 28, but Brunton estimates in June the prodco was employing 500-600. “John and I strive to make it fun, and we all act as a team and everybody respects each other. It brings back staff show after show,” Bowlby says.

Brunton adds: “I think we have a great touch when it comes to working with talent – from editors to on-air hosts, rock stars, temperamental directors and writers. Insight is a great place for creative people in that they are welcomed and honoured here.”